The Huszars.

The Huszars

In the time of the Ottoman Empire, an elite cavalry known as the Huszars waged war against the Turks. The Huszars were great strategists, both on horseback and on foot, and for that reason were often enlisted as mercenaries by European countries. Riding small, hardy horses, they fought on most of Europe’s battlefields, swiftly scouting the countryside, assessing tactics and clearing a path for the infantry.

The gentleman standing next to me in the photograph is dressed in the flamboyant uniform of a traditional Huszar. This was taken at the Hungarian Consulate during a wine tasting banquet, where he gave a brief account of the Hungarian Huszars. The costume was designed to avert flesh wounds from sabers and swords.

The Huszars served the Hapsburg army during its long reign and played a vital role on the battlefields of Russia, Poland and France. Napoleon is said to have boasted that, if he had recruited more Huszars, he would have won the war.

But the fearless Huszars were not without blemish. They were brazen. They plundered. They drank to excess. They bragged and womanized. But if any foreign military needed the best, they were the best.

When the Civil War broke out in America, Karoly Zagonyi became the chief cavalry instructor for Major General John C. Fremont. Not only did Zagonyi train the general’s cavalry, he also had the cavalry equipped with sabers, revolvers and proper uniforms. Zagonyi’s men helped win many battles fought on horseback, and Zagonyi was eventually named Fremont’s personal bodyguard.

Many other countries used the Huszars’ expertise—Argentina, Canada, Chile, United Kingdom, Peru, Spain and Denmark. After World War II and the advent of modern military machinery, the use of the Huszars diminished.

If you have the time, take a look at these two videos. The first one is longer, the second shorter. Be sure to notice how skillfully the Huszars use their horses.

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Cinderella finds her long lost slippers.

Cinderella finds her long lost slippers

Over a year ago, a language professor at Berkley University translated some Hungarian documents and letters for me. I had found him through a referral to interpret military papers belonging to my father that were technical in nature. Then, almost a year later, I was surprised to find that he had given my name to be placed on a newsletter list of Hungarian events. I was honored to receive an invitation to celebrate the two hundredth birthday of Count Agoston Harászthy at the General Consulate of Hungary in San Francisco.

The count’s birthday was a rare opportunity to meet other Hungarians who had left Hungary in 1956, as I did. Like me, these guests and the count had long ago traveled to settle in a far away land. In 1812, when he left Hungary, Harászthy came as a pioneer to California, where he eventually became the father of California viticulture, the science of grapes aging to perfection into good wines.

The guests sampled some of Hungary’s traditional foods: cheese pogácsa, apple strudel, and delectable meat canapés. They also sipped some of Harászthy’s wonderful Buena Vista wines, appreciated today by many connoisseurs. I felt like Cinderella lost in time, for I had found my slippers—the many bits and pieces of my ancestors’ roots and stories.

I—Cinderella—and guests were wined and dined and entertained by a dramatic storyteller. The storyteller in the photograph, wearing a top hat and period costume, vividly re-enacted the count’s life. He related the count’s numerous accomplishments and some of his defeats—for without risk, there were no gains to be made. I was awed to hear how this visionary braved the tough new world of California. If you care to read about Count Agoston Harászthy, here is a link:

You will find it worth your time.

Also, dear readers, from now on I will be posting every two weeks instead of weekly so that I can complete my novel by winter time. Thanks for your understanding. In two weeks I will be writing about the famous Huszárs.

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Music at St. Stephen’s Bascilica

Music at St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest

At the end of a long day wandering the sites of Budapest, I went to St. Stephen’s Basilica in the square that bears his name. I had heard that St. Stephen’s resembles St. Paul’s Cathedral in London—both are neoclassical in design and have withstood the ravages of war. But I also wanted to light some votive candles for deceased members of my family and witness a holy relic, the mummified right hand of St. Stephen.

It was nearly eight o’clock when I arrived, and I noticed an older man sitting on a wooden chair hunched over a violin. The beautiful music he was playing—Brahms, I think—seemed to echo through the street and land on the rooftops around me.

The man was hoping to earn a little money from passersby. Like most of Europe, Hungary’s economy is suffering, and this man, poorly dressed and shivering, looked worn out from trying to make ends meet. Curious, I slowed my pace. His collar was pulled up to his ears to protect them from the wind, and the stitching on his hat had unraveled. In spite of the cold, he played his violin from a place deep in his heart. I dropped a few American bills into his violin case. He nodded his thanks, continuing to sway to the sweet rhythms, and I couldn’t help noticing his frostbitten hands and gnarled fingers. Snowflakes were gradually covering both of us, and the dim lamplight cast shadows off the few remaining people on the street.

I left him to enter the Basilica. After an hour I emerged to find the old man gone. I could only hope that my small donation would be enough to bring him some warmth for the evening.

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Lost in My Purse

Lost in My Purse.

While riding the escalator out of the subway in Budapest, I got lost in my purse, searching for the ticket stub I needed to exit the metro. I had purchased the ticket only a half hour before, at the Opera House station, but now that stub of paper was nowhere to be found.

I had spent the day strolling the Ándrassy Boulevard, a heritage site, after my visit to the House of Terror Museum (please see my earlier posts, below). Neoclassical mansions and townhouses lined this cultural street. I tried not to gawk like the tourist I was. I discovered galleries, museums, shops full of trinkets, and byblos selling books in many languages. I window-shopped at high-end boutiques and ate at an Indian restaurant.

But where had I stuck that blessed ticket?

I moaned in frustration as I moved aside to let others go by. Now at the top landing, I leaned against a wall and continued my search through my cavernous bag. Semi (sh’em’ee). Nothing. I dug through my coat pockets and retrieved a pair of wrinkled gloves. Still semi.

Then I heard a chuckle. I looked up and found myself face to face with a metro agent. “Don’t tell me you forgot to buy your ticket,” she said without sympathy. “We have passengers all the time trying to ride for free. You can’t buy a ticket here, you do know that. You should have bought it before you got on the train, not here at the end of the line. I will have to fine you for this.”

I was aghast. My face must have turned claret red as I fumed. Hundreds of ogling passengers were witnessing my embarrassment at this peak hour of the day. I tried to explain that I had purchased my fare but couldn’t put my hand on the ticket.

Standing tall and smug, the agent glowed as she clicked her pen. She cocked her head as if to say “I got you!” and began writing out the fine.

I unfolded my gloves and shoved a hand into one. Out fell my lost ticket. “I found it,” I cried.

The agent curled her lips and made an exasperated gesture. “Menyél akor továb. Go on then,” she said.




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Navigating the Torrid Waters of Writing

If you have just stumbled upon this blog and are wondering what it is about, let me tell you. Last February, these posts emerged as a catharsis over the loss of a special loved one. Should you care to read about this, please click on Reason to Write.

Two years ago, I dipped my toes into the torrid waters of writing, and before long I had produced the first draft of my novel. I did my research by reading history and by traveling to various parts of Europe. In time, the writing, combined with the historical discoveries I had made along the way, blossomed into a passionate affair. Now I blog weekly about the scenes behind my writing, my travels, and the stories told to me by strangers, friends and family. It is their stories that form the foundation—and the lifeblood—of my novel, Shattered Tears for My Homeland. If you would like to read the opening chapter, please go to:

While creating my historical fiction, I learned that writing is an arduous craft. It’s a daily push and pull, it’s a climb to the summit, take their toll, taxing the brain and vexing the soul. But in the ebb and flow of writing, I found the heights and depths of joy. I found the uncharted places of the mind where treasures are buried, where possibilities abound, all to be unearthed and examined like newly found diamonds.

Being a writer, I know I am biased when I say that writers are an intriguing bunch. We are hardy and dedicated, obstinate but caring, and we are devoted to the written word. We often live in an insular world, while at the same time keeping an open mind and fine-tuning the message of the universe. What do I want to achieve as I write? To tell a story in a truthful way, to open the eyes of my readers to a time and place in history they may never have known about—and to travel there together.


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Ray of Hope

Amidst the doom and gloom of the House of Terror Museum in Budapest hides a ray of hope—a small room full of postcards. Some have dull finishes, others are rich and glossy, with pictures of palm trees, oases, snow-capped mountains, sky scrapers, and deserts filled with blooming cacti.

These postcards—thousands of them clipped to the walls of this small room—are postmarked from the four corners of the world. They were mailed by the refugees who fled the 1956 Hungarian Revolution—the lucky ones who found their freedom. On them are written tender words to family and friends less fortunate, those who stayed behind to brave the tough years following the revolution.

I was astonished to find this room, and I couldn’t help but tremble. I felt I was reliving my own family’s past, and I tried not to cry in this public place. These cards reminded me of the sepia ones I still have, exchanged between my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents, sharing their news from opposite sides of the world.

I peered closely at the stamps and faint ink marks and was overcome with joy. The cards had traveled across every ocean on Earth, from Canada, the United States, Italy, New Zealand, France, Britain, South America and more. They told stories of opportunity, well-paid jobs, new languages, new friendships, new climates. They asked about family, friends and lovers, about those left behind. They expressed longing for mothers and fathers missed, and told of plans to reunite and begin a new life. One overall story stood out among all of these: In the silent voice of print was the story of freedom, how it looked and dressed, how it walked and talked, how it tasted. Freedom—without fear.

Because I was forbidden to take photographs in this memorable room, I have posted here some of my family’s postcards.

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Chain Wall

I witnessed much suffering at the House of Terror Museum in Budapest. If you missed my post on this dark place, please read Unknown Place below and look at the only photograph I was permitted to take. It is of a tank in a large foyer, and behind it are thousands of black and white faces staring out from the wall, faces that continue to haunt and pluck at the strings of my heart.

These faces are the men and women who died in the name of freedom in Hungary. They remind us that, even today, there are places in the world governed by terror and corruption. How can this be? Why hasn’t mankind evolved and learned from the mistakes of the past? What will it take for humanity to realize that we are all one on this Earth, that our differences are insignificant, that our interconnectedness is what makes us human? What will it take for our governments to listen?

Since the beginning of human history, men have grabbed the lands and possessions of others. This was the story of much of Europe during the two world wars.Hungary fell victim to the greed and lust for power of Communist Russia. For what seemed like eternity, Communist Russia reigned over the hefty chunk of Europe that it took by force, spilling the blood of thousands. Hungary revolted in 1956 and lost the final battle in November of that year, but for a few short days, she tasted freedom and never gave up on that dream.

The photograph you see here is of a rusted, thick, chain wall. Along the edge is a message sent by Hungary to the world: “1949–1989. Shall we live as slaves or free men? The Iron Curtain: It isolated the East from the West. It split Europe and the world in two. It took away our freedom. It held us in captivity. It tormented and haunted us. And we finally tore it DOWN.”

I ask you: What is our dream for a better world today? What chained walls must we tear down to live in peaceful coexistence?

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Unusual Place

There exists an unusual destination in the heart of Budapest, a reminder of the darkest hours of Hungary’s wartime past. It is not a place for the faint of heart. This edifice, so popular among tourists, is menacing and iron-fisted. Here, at 60 Andrassy Avenue, it once occupied an entire block and was filled with prisoners hauled to and fro through a labyrinth of subterranean tunnels. I owed it to myself to visit this reign of terror from the days of the Iron Curtain.

Originally, the building was the headquarters of the Arrow Cross (the Hungarian Nazis), and it was dubbed the House of Loyalty. After World War II, the communist machinery renamed it the House of Terror, in an attempt to threaten all who came near. So, where Nazis once ruled, the communist Secret Service Police now governed this “place of no return.” The AVO police (Hungary’s State Security Agency) purportedly carried out unspeakable tortures, forcing innocents to confess to false crimes and false information.

I paid my admission to witness this tragic era in my ancestors’ history. I was told that photography was forbidden, and so I surrendered my camera along with my coat. Too bad, I thought. Again, the truths of the past were to be held to the ransom of profit rather than shared for the world to see. And too bad that I have no photos of the inside of this terrible place.

With or without a camera, I was eager to wade through the exhibit. In one of the larger rooms, I was caught off guard and felt like my shoes were stuck to the floor. All around me, wall after wall, were giant TV screens, each one blaring the story of someone’s tragedy during the reign of terror. Some of the people telling their stories were old, others were young. The eyes of some filled with tears, the voices of others trembled. They all spoke at once, and I didn’t know which way to turn, which person to listen to. I realized that this was intentional. The exhibit had been designed so that visitors like me would experience the chaos, the fear, the paranoia that consumed the prisoners at the hands of the Secret Service Police. The room spoke volumes.

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Finding the Unexpected

A tourist traveling in a country other than her own—even in her country of birth—is apt to find the unexpected. Fact-finding in Hungary was making me wiser. Each day, sometimes more than once a day, I picked the language I would communicate in, depending on the circumstances. When blending in would be to my advantage, I spoke my mother tongue. But when speaking Hungarian got me no where, I spoke English. Perhaps this sounds false-hearted, but after my experience at the library, I decided that strategy was called for in gathering information.

After the library, I searched out the famous Gundel restaurant, near the historic Heroes Square. I had heard much about it. It was founded by the János Gundel in 1884 but was now owned by the cosmetic magnate, the Estée Lauder family. I entered the restaurant hoping to warm myself, as my toes were ice-bitten and my black coat and boots were covered in a dusting of snow. I decided to speak English, to see what would happen.

The staff were rushing about, setting the tables with white table cloths, polishing stemware and cutlery that didn’t quite pass the gleam test, and arranging fresh flowers. It turned out they were preparing for a special New Year’s party. Still chilled to the bone, I huddled at the entrance. All I wanted was a glass of warm mulled wine and a sample of pastries.

The dining room manager explained that this was a black-tie affair and they were closed to the public, but he was kind enough to ask if I had a reservation. I told him I was a writer, researching my family’s past during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Immediately, he took me into his office. There he retrieved a beautifully illustrated book and handed it to me. The book was about the Gundel family and the history of the restaurant, and looking at it quickly, I learned that this famous restaurant had been frequented by kings and princes.

I thanked the man profusely and promised him that somewhere, somehow, I would weave the Gundel restaurant into my novel. For this I was handsomely paid in kind, not only with this beautiful book, but also with coffee and crepes served by a waiter in an adjoining room. My decision to speak English had brought me this reward, and for this I’d like to say thank you to Mr. Kóvács Ádám.

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The Library

I wandered the streets of Budaörs one day, searching for something, something intangible from my past that might resonate with me. I visited places that resembled what they had once been but were modernized, with updated windows, new fences and restored brickwork. If you have just joined me, scroll down and read about my journey into my past and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. In my forthcoming book, I open with my visit to the cemetery. You can join me there, by reading the first chapter

Late on this day, my male cousin took me to a library that also served as a storage center for information and documents. I asked the receptionist if I could talk to the administrator. Speaking Hungarian, I apologized for arriving without an appointment, and explained that I had traveled from the United States and was looking for information about the city in 1956. She pushed herself away from her desk and disappeared through a set of sliding glass doors, to return a few minutes later with a man in his sixties.

The man was slightly rotund, with more salt than pepper in his hair. On seeing me, his face stiffened and he yanked his belt up under his sagging belly. By the way he cleared his throat I knew I had disturbed him. I apologized, and my cousin chimed in with apologies too. He took us into his office, where we sat in our coats fully buttoned up to our necks.

The administrator appeared annoyed when I asked him where I could find information on the city’s development before, during and after the revolution. Stone-faced, he addressed my cousin, not me, refusing to either look at me or speak to me. He talked about the book he had published on Budaörs going back to the time of the Celts, Romans and Turks. Not once during his long monologue did he acknowledge me.

I was very upset when I left the library, though I wasn’t sure why. What had that been about? Was it prejudice? Prejudice of what? Because I was a foreigner? A woman? Someone who did not speak his language very well? I have found it hard to write about this incident. It upsets me still—and still leaves me wondering.

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